Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood responded to several questions last week in which I attempted to channel some thoughts from the D.C. region’s travelers about paying for a better commute.
Dr. Gridlock: In the Maryland/Virginia/D.C. region, our discussions about tolling highways often generate this question from my readers: Haven’t we already paid for this road? Are they wrong to consider it double taxation if they must pay a new toll to travel a highway that was built with federal tax money?
LaHood: Tolling is limited on interstate highways, but the federal programs that do allow states to add tolls require substantial improvements on that particular road. Because the tolling pays for the improvements — but not for building the road — it’s not double taxation.
Dr. Gridlock: Some commuters who identify themselves as drivers, transit users, bikers or walkers resent government efforts to aid people who travel by methods other than their method. Drivers resent transit projects, bike lanes and pedestrian-safety initiatives. Transit users and cyclists resent spending on new highways. As a transportation policymaker, how do you explain to one group of travelers why an expenditure or program is worthwhile if it doesn’t appear to benefit them directly?
LaHood: This is an easy one. We simply can’t have everyone using the same way of getting around. If we did, our trains and buses would be packed like sardine cans, or our roads would be impassable with congestion, or pedestrians would be overrun by bicyclists.
Investing in transit helps take cars off the road; that actually benefits those who choose to drive or bike. And the plain truth is that people in this country like their cars; I still remember my own first car with more than a little fondness.
The Obama administration has worked hard to help our cars get better gas mileage and operate more cleanly, and so we will continue needing good, well-maintained roads for many years to come. Everywhere I go, people tell me they want more options for getting around, not fewer, and that’s what we’re trying to do.
Dr. Gridlock: Government, business and civic groups routinely develop lists of transportation projects needed to eliminate congestion over the next 10 or 20 years. But the price tags — in the billions or trillions of dollars — appear to be far beyond what the public is willing to support for congestion relief. Is ending congestion an unrealistic goal for an urban region? (And if so, what’s a more realistic target?) Or are we not being creative enough about finding new sources of revenue to fight congestion?
LaHood: Look, our population is growing, and we only have so much room. Adding highway lanes is expensive no matter where you do it, and in many places — particularly urban areas — there’s just is no room for more lanes. Some communities are trying to manage congestion with variable pricing on new roads or new HOT [high-occupancy toll] lanes.
Here in our region, you can see that with the Intercounty Connector in Maryland and the toll lanes they’re building on the Beltway in Virginia. The Beltway project is also a public-private partnership, which other communities are looking into as a way to solve funding challenges.
Of course, one less-expensive solution to roadway congestion that some urban communities are turning to is more public-transit service. The streetcar projects underway here in Washington, D.C., are a terrific example, as is our wildly popular Circulator bus service.
If I had to make one statement about the mood of travelers based on the letters I get, this could be it: Commuters in the D.C. region are determined to see improvements in the transportation system, and they are equally determined not to pay for them.
In Maryland, Gov. Martin O’Malley is urging the General Assembly to consider a 15-cent increase in the gas tax to help finance road, transit and other transportation projects. This comes as the state is finishing up new toll roads and raising the fees for roads, tunnels and bridges already tolled. Virginia, already building HOT lanes, wants to toll part of I-95.
But I haven’t seen a tax or a toll that won strong backing from the traveling public.
What’s to be done? LaHood’s answers are realistic. Solutions from the past, such as building highways in urban areas, are not the sole solution for the future. Tolls can be a legitimate way to raise money for some improvements. Meanwhile, we have to think more creatively about how to move people and accept new ideas that get the job done at a price we’re willing to pay.
Dr. Gridlock also appears Thursday in Local Living. Comments and questions are welcome and may be used in a column, along with the writer’s name and home community. Write Dr. Gridlock at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071 or